A colleague of mine once told me that all “Great Writers” suffer some kind of trauma or catastrophe at around age thirteen. That statement upset me for weeks. What does it mean? Could we take a group of normal, well-adjusted, no-talent kids, perform some kind of trauma intervention and make them into “Great Writers?” We’ll all be rich! (Bearing in mind that “rich,” in Canadian Writing Dollars, is $213.45.) Or perhaps it means that if my own personal trauma at thirteen was the wrong kind, or wasn’t bad enough, I will never be a Great Writer. There have only ever been about twelve really GREAT writers, let’s not kid ourselves. But if not sufficiently traumatized, should we give up trying to be even just Pretty Good Writers? Think of the time I’ve wasted.
Something happens to everyone when they’re around thirteen, give or take. Whatever bubble your childhood has existed in up to that point, and even terrible childhoods exist in a bubble, somewhere around age thirteen, to top off the physical changes you’ve been going through, comes a change in awareness. That is when the world comes in. You see things, you become aware that you’re seeing them, and you have to make decisions about them. Your childhood was spent in your parents’ world. Now it’s become your world.
Thirteen is its own trauma. Writers are the ones born with a compulsion to write things down, that’s all. For me at thirteen it was as though a river split around an island, and after it went around the island the river wasn’t water any more. It was one-half luminous, flowing, iridescent light and one-half arsenic, and no telling where one started and the other began. Writing bad poetry in my bedroom seemed like the only thing to do.
Here’s something that happened to me at thirteen. Not the worst trauma anyone ever suffered. Not even the worst trauma I ever suffered. But perfectly timed, and part of what made the river split. I tell this story all the time. Please don’t stop me if you’ve heard it.
When I was thirteen our family moved from Niagara Falls, Ontario to Winnipeg, Manitoba. From east to west and from small town to big city. Grapevines to wheatfields. Water that falls to water that rises. You know what it’s called when you step in a puddle that’s deeper than you thought it would be and the water goes into your shoe? That’s called a “soaker” in Ontario, but in Manitoba it’s a “booter.” Big adjustments. I also moved from my childhood, which was so nearly perfect I am tempted to feel guilty about it, into whatever was to come after that.
I was at a new school of course, and the different school curricula in the different provinces meant I had to repeat Grade 9. At that time High School in Ontario went from Grade 9 to 13, unlike in Manitoba where it went from Grade 10 to 12. So I had to go back from High School to Junior High. There’s no way that wasn’t going to suck.
I had a cousin in the new school who was a lot of fun, and she was kind enough to pull me into her circle of friends, but it was a lonesome year. One nice thing: there was a vacant field of considerable size I could cut across for part of the way home, with stands of trees and grasshoppers jumping out of the tall grass. It was a lovely walk home.
(When we traumatize adolescents to turn them into writers, the first thing we’ll teach them is the use of the words “until,” “but,” and “suddenly.” They are almost the only words you need.)
A group of three or four boys started to follow me home. I didn’t know them: I think they went to the other Junior High. They would walk along behind me, making faces and imitating my walk and saying those clever, cutting things for which grade nine boys are so renowned.
“Aauuuuah you’re ugly…” etc.
We didn’t have the anti-bullying programs they do now. I did not have one hot clue what to do.
I tried walking different ways home. I tried hanging around at school for no reason so maybe they’d go home before I did, but they were on to me. They would wait on the one corner they knew I couldn’t avoid without walking an extra couple of miles and they didn’t seem to have anywhere they needed to be, so they could wait for a long time. It happened most days of the week most weeks, and I guess it went on for a couple of months. It’s hard to remember.
Somewhere deep inside me I must have had a small amount of nerve; some slightly fierce little animal that finally woke up and had enough. One day I did, I finally did, I actually did turn around on the cold and lonely East Kildonan sidewalk and tell them to stop. I can’t imagine I had the balls to tell them to fuck off. I probably said “bug off.” Whatever I said, it worked. They never did it again.
The best thing about this story is that it doesn’t end there. If it did, it would just be an unremarkable story of a girl learning to stick up for herself. Good for her, the plucky thing. The problem is that I didn’t learn to stand up for myself. That was one of the only times I’ve ever done it. Quite a few unpleasant things have happened to me because I can’t tell people to fuck off, even when they richly deserve it. That’s okay. I guess. I have other strengths.
We now jump ahead to grade twelve. I was the president of the Drama Club, and one of the five best mimes in the entire school. I had certainly come a long way.
Phys.Ed. class, which was bad enough given my complete ineptitude when it comes to any sport or game, was made worse when my mother bought me a lime green track suit. She thought I had a lot of personality, and got me a track suit to match. Almost no one in high school wants to have their personality broadcast in lime green neon. I wanted, as they say, to die, but it never occurred to me to ask her if I could exchange it for something with less “pizzazz;” something that would allow me to disappear completely during basketball.
On the plus side, for Grade 12 English I had one of the five best teachers in my entire life. His love of the written word was sincere without being goopy. He was hilarious and deeply irreverent. One student went to Hawaii at Christmas and brought him back a wind-up hula doll. Mr. Gilbert named her Ophelia. When we studied Hamlet, every time Ophelia entered the story Mr. Gilbert would wind up the doll and off she’d go. As silly as he could be in the name of keeping us engaged, he knew his stuff and we worked hard in that class. He was also the first person who said something really constructive and positive to me about something I had written and if anyone knows where Mr. Gilbert is, please tell him thanks from me.
The only problem with English class was that we were seated alphabetically up and down the rows. Just my lime green luck: I was seated in a tight cluster that consisted of me, and every one of my Grade 9 tormentors. I had to walk past them, between them, to get to my desk. I didn’t talk to them, they didn’t talk to me. Why would they?
One day the guy that sat directly in front of me, let’s call him Tim, turned around in his seat just before class started and said, “we want to tell you we’re really sorry that we were so mean to you in Grade 9.” After a stunned pause I probably said “that’s okay,” because that’s what you say.
They turned out to be nice guys and we had fun that year, watching the hula doll and laughing at Mr. Gilbert. I always wondered whose idea it was to apologize, and how Tim got himself elected to do the talking.
Graduation was upon us. (“Grad” in Manitoba, “Prom” in Ontario.) In those days and in that school, if you didn’t have a date for Grad you weren’t likely to go. I feel like it might go without saying that no-one had asked me. (See: mime. See also: lime green track suit.) My Dad suggested I get my brother to take me. For a smart person, Dad could be so clueless. Not going to Grad wasn’t the end of the world or anything, but when Tim and the boys in English heard I wasn’t going they said “oh yes you are,” and they made me go with them. They had another friend who didn’t have a date and they didn’t make it awkward by “setting us up” to go together, but we made an even number at their table, and I had a ride to Grad that wasn’t my brother.
Through the various other traumas and difficulties that came in the years beyond thirteen, that story has been something to rely on, a kind of ace in the hole. If they hadn’t apologized, I would be someone different now. I would probably be a person who ended up bitter because she didn’t get to go to Grad, and who harbours a secret fear of East Kildonan sidewalks, and Grade 9 boys.
If they hadn’t apologized the whole thing would have been much more traumatic and maybe I’d be a “Great Writer” now. That’s okay. Being a writer is not worth that much ($213.45 CWD). A story about a plucky girl who learns to stand up for herself is only worth something if it’s true. But while attempting to survive the trauma that life can be at any age, I’ll take the story where she learns that people can stun you with their decency, and that it is never too late to be the good guy.
Say “Ophelia:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-vvztYjNPM
© 2017 by Ellen Peterson, River East Collegiate Class of ’80. Go Kodiaks.